AIDS identification began in June 1981 when the CDC published reports on clusters of gay men in New York and California who had been diagnosed with pneumocystic pneumonia or Kaposi’s sarcoma. These two rare illnesses had previously been observed only in people whose immune systems had been damaged by drugs or disease. These reports triggered concern that a disease of the immune system was spreading quickly in the homosexual community. Initially called gay-related immunodeficiency disease (GRID), the new illness soon was identified in population groups outside the gay community, including users of intravenous drugs, recipients of blood transfusions, and heterosexual partners of infected people. In 1982 the name for the new illness was changed to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS.
While the disease was making headlines for the speed with which it was spreading around the world, the cause of AIDS remained unidentified. Fear of AIDS and ignorance of its causes resulted in some outlandish theories. Some thought the disease was God’s punishment for behaviors that they considered immoral. These early theories created a social stigma surrounding the disease that still lingers.
Scientists quickly identified the primary modes of transmission—sexual contact with an infected person, contact with infected blood products, and mother-to-child transmission. From these modes of transmission it was clear that the new illness was spread in a specific manner that matched the profile of a viral infection. In 1983 French cancer specialist Luc Montagnier and his colleagues isolated what appeared to be a new human retrovirus from AIDS patients. They named it lymphadenopathy virus (LAV). Eight months later Gallo and his colleagues isolated the same virus in AIDS patients, naming the virus HTLV-III. Eventually, scientists agreed to call the infectious agent human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). In 1985 a new AIDS-causing virus was discovered in West Africa. Named HIV-2, the new virus is closely related to the first HIV, but it appears to be less harmful to cells of the immune system and reproduces more slowly than HIV-1.
Research leading to the development of the ELISA test was conducted simultaneously by teams led by Gallo in the United States and Montagnier in France. In 1985 the ELISA test to identify HIV in blood became available, followed by the development of the Western Blot test. These tests were first employed to screen blood for the presence of HIV before the blood was used in medical procedures. The tests were later used to identify HIV-infected people, many of whom did not know they were infected. These diagnostic tests also helped scientists study the course of HIV infection in populations and fully helped in aids identification.